As the Dallas Stars prepare to kick off the 2010-2011 season tonight in New Jersey, they play the first game in a new era of hockey in North Texas. No longer do the Stars have the face of the franchise on the team and the long-time goaltender is now playing in windier cities. The Stars are looking to take that next big step as a franchise, moving forward with an uncertain financial future but one that certainly bright enough to give optimism to every fan. This is a team that is suddenly very young and one that has even younger players waiting in the wings for their chance to prove themselves at the NHL level.
What the Stars don't have -- at least for now -- is that onc player, that superstar, the team can use to sell themselves to fans across Dallas. For 17 years it's been Mike Modano we've seen on billboards, magnets, bumper stickers, t-shirts and every bit of swag you can find. Over the years he's been joined by others -- Marty Turco, Brett Hull, Sergei Zubov, Eddie Belfour -- but none had the appeal of Modano. He was good looking, he was charismatic, he as American; most of all, he was good.
The Dallas Stars don't have a player quite like that. Brad Richards comes close and while he is one of the best in the NHL at reaching out to the community, he just doesn't have the off-ice personality to really become that "larger than life" persona the Stars need in order to sell the team. Brenden Morrow is too blue-collar and Mike Ribeiro, while he's refocused this season, is just too aloof in order to pull it off.
This season the Stars marketing campaign has been centered around the "team" and the Stars themselves reflect that. With Modano gone, Marc Crawford is preaching that this is now a hockey team that must win by having every player on the ice do their part -- no more relying on a superstar to the difference. Yet as we approach the dawning of a new season in Stars hockey, there is one player on the ice who is on the verge of becoming that one star that fans will see in magazines and billboards across the Metroplex.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jamie Benn is the future captain of the Dallas Stars. He's barely old enough to buy himself a drink (at least in Dallas) and he has just one season under his belt, but the big and talented forward has already taken the NHL by storm. While his talent is instantly obvious when watching him play, it's his natural leadership ability and his ability to make plays at the absolute perfect times during games that truly sets him apart.
Benn is one of those rare big forwards that possesses all the skills you could want from a hockey player. He's a great skater, has great balance, he can play physical along the boards and he possesses incredible skill with the puck in open ice. While we caught only glimpses last season, Benn also is willing to drop the gloves when the situation calls for it -- and generally he ends up getting the better of his opponent in doing so.
Most importantly, Benn has a natural leadership ability that instantly makes those around him better. None truly believed he would make the NHL roster last season and while a key injury ultimately gave him that chance, he instantly proved that he belonged in Dallas. He started off on the wing but ended up playing the last half of the season at center, filling a need for the Stars after several key injuries. While still possessing great finishing ability himself he also proved his playmaking capabilities were above-average as well and the Stars are looking for Benn to continue to develop as a center in the NHL.
With more minutes on the power play and more significant minutes as the third line center, Benn has the chance to drastically improve upon his rookie season. He was far from perfect last season but the flashes of his potential for greatness were there in every game. It's not just about the goals he scored it's how he approaches the game and how he plays on the ice -- every shift -- that is most important. A player like this comes around only so often and the Stars know they have future franchise player on the verge of breaking out into being a star in the NHL.
While the Stars will adopt a "team approach" in the marketing and on-ice product this season, the future bodes well for a team that has seen its most marketable players depart over recent years. For so long we've seen players like Modano, Zubov and Lehtinen be touted as the faces of the franchise and while the Stars are playing up Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow this year more than others there's no doubting that this team needs that one special player that it can build around.
Jamie Benn came to the NHL a quiet player off the ice who let his play do the talking for him. He's opened up over the past year however and it's apparent he has not only the on-ice ability but the charisma to match it off ice as well. While the product in games is ultimately most important, teams need that one player that can be the face of the franchise on ice as well as off. It will be interesting to see how Benn handles that level of pressure, he's shown in the past that he warmly embraces the role of the leader of a team.
His track record in Kelowna and the past summer during the AHL playoffs have proven that Benn has the ability and the persona to take command of a team and lead them both off ice as well as by example during games. He is still a ways off from taking that step with the Stars but there's no doubting that once he does, the team will instantly rally around him and follow the example he sets.
It's just his second season in the NHL and already Jamie Benn is on the verge of becoming great. The Stars aren't putting too much pressure on the young player too early in his career, instead having the ability to slowly build up his role on the team. As the season progresses we'll see Benn get more and more significant minutes and we'll see him grow even more as an NHL center and playmaker.
Most importantly, we'll see Jamie Benn grow into his ultimate role as the leader of the Dallas Stars.